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Compelling, must see “Anna Christie” at Ensemble

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Eugene O’Neill is one of America’s greatest, if not THE greatest playwright.  The winner of a  Nobel Prize for Literature and four Pulitzer prizes for drama, including “Anna Christie,” which is now in production at Ensemble Theatre, his plays are master classes in language usage.

His forte is realism, much in the mold of Chekhov and Ibsen.  He was the forerunner of the likes of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge.

O’Neill writes natural, real dialect.  His characters speak as real people from the area and class of the play’s settings.  They are often people on the fringes of society, struggling to find their footing. They dream of a better life, but almost always slide into despair, hopelessness and disillusionment.  Even when he writes a happy ending, as he does in “Anna Christie,” there is no certainty that tranquility will reign.

O’Neill spent many years at sea, after having been expelled from Princeton for throwing a beer bottle through the window of Professor Woodrow Wilson.  Yes, that Wilson, the future President of the US.  The contents of the bottle is significant, as O’Neill was an alcoholic.  He also suffered from depression.

It is helpful to know O’Neill, as a person, in order to fully appreciate and gain a depth of insight into his writing.  Because of his life, habits and actions, many of his characters are people with a connection to the sea, are alcoholics, have mental illnesses, abandon the important people in their lives, and are self-destructive.  His messages and characters not only resonate, but stay with those who experience his writings.

O’Neill was unique from birth to death.  His life started in a hotel room and also ended in one.  He succumbed in 1953, at the age of 65, in the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Boston.  It is now Shelton Hall dormitory of Boston University, and the legend is, that his spirit haunts the room and the dorm.

“Anna Christy” opens in a waterfront bar in New York about 1910.  Old Chris, a coal-barge captain, receives a letter from his daughter, Anna Christie, who he has not seen since she was 5 years old.  Unbeknownst to Old Chris, she has lived a tumultuous life, filled with secrets and regrets.  They meet at the bar and have a tenuous connection.  She agrees to go to the coal barge with him.  She finds peace on the water and decides to stay on the boat.

During a sailing, they rescue survivors from a shipwreck.  One of the boatmen is Mat Burke.  At first he and Anna spark.  Then they fall in love.  Mat wants to marry Anna who he perceives to be a sweet innocent.  In order not to reveal her past, she refuses.  Eventually, a fight for control of Anna ensues between Chris and Mat.  To assert her independence, Anna reveals the lurid details of  her life, including being raped, homelessness, and a turn as a prostitute.  Chris leaves, Anna sticks around, Chris returns, they agree to marry.  A twist of fate brings a new issue, as the play comes to its dénouement.

The Ensemble production, under the laser focused direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz, is compelling.  Each character is carefully etched. The pacing and story clarity make the 125-minute, four act epic, zoom by.  The audience rides the emotional waves, carried by what often appears to be the rocking of the boat, the flowing of the fog, and the magic of moonlight at sea.

Katie Nabors gives what must be one of the best local performances of the year as Anna.  The beautiful young lady is completely believable in the role.  She is not acting a part, she is living Anna’s life.  Bravo!

Greg White, as Anna’s father, sets his Norwegian accent at the start and retains it throughout.  He does not portray a conflicted, alcoholic man of the sea, he is one.  Hurrah!

Handsome Michael Johnson is totally believable as the young longshoreman who falls in love with Anna and must decide whether he can “forgive” her for her past life’s actions.  Good job!

The rest of cast, Mary Alice Beck (Marthy), Stephen Vasse-Hansell (Larry), Allen Branstein (Johnny the Priest) and Kyle Huff (Longshoreman) are all excellent.

The set, the lighting, and the special effects all enhance the production.

Capsule judgment:  Ensemble’s “Anna Christie” is one of those special theatrical events that is required seeing for anyone who not only wants to appreciate the wonders of Eugene O’Neill’s masterful use of words, but see a flawless production!  Go see a show that actually deserves a standing ovation!

“Anna Christie” runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through October 19, 2014.  For tickets go to or 216-321-2930.